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Into the here and now: Hilton College shares an archaeology project

| June 24, 2014 | 0 Comments

By John Roff

Hilton College, a boy’s boarding school and long-time ISASA member in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, is custodian of a large area of land, part of which has been declared the Hilton College Nature Reserve, used extensively for education and recreation by all grades of boys at the school.

On the reserve are the remains of an early Iron Age settlement, dating from between 650 to 780 AD. An opportunity arose to include this site and its significance into the Grade 8 history curriculum, and the Hilton curriculum development group joined with the history department to develop the project described below.

The project forms part of the school’s history syllabus for Grade 8, and aims to develop the following skills and competencies in the boys: deduction, imagination, original thinking and research. We feel that learning these skills within the context of experience ‘in place’ adds to the applicability of the skills, as well as giving the boys a unique insight into the nation’s early history and the importance of archaeological research in our country. Part of the power of this kind of project is that it highlights the many ways in which South Africans live and work, both now (as archaeologists, for example) and in the past (Iron Age farmers).

From the learner’s perspective, the primary attraction of the activity is probably the idea of detective work, that there are clear clues to the past in a place they often simply walk over, and that there is more to most places than first meets the eye.


Lesson one – detective activity:

The boys formed small groups, and were given an artefact from the early Iron Age, without any prior knowledge of its context. They had to answer the following questions (and were rewarded for creative thinking rather than historical accuracy): what is it made of, what was it used for, how old is it, and what is it? They were not allowed to do any formal research at this point, instead being required to think up their own responses. This was the hardest part of the entire exercise for most of the group, as many felt uncomfortable with not being able to look up a ready answer on the internet.

Lesson two – a talk to set the context:

A talk, demonstration and series of video clips served to explain where the artefacts had come from, and to give a historical context. My colleagues and I tried to link the early Iron Age to the students’ current lives by using a physical timeline (a two-metre stick they could hold), showing some significant events of the last 2 000 years – the time of Jesus, the arrival of the first farmers in South Africa, the first Nguni language speakers in South Africa, the arrival of the Portuguese explorer Bartholomew Diaz, the reign of the Zulu king Shaka, the year Hilton College was founded, the year they were born, up to the present.

We included footage of iron smelting from a South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) documentary Shoreline,1 interviews with a local archaeologist, real early Iron Age pottery artefacts and plenty of time for questions. These question/answer sessions helped learners enormously to consider how and why people live the way they do, both now and in the past.

They also made powerful cross-curricular links to geography in terms of why people choose to settle where they do, to life orientation in terms of the many ways different cultures over time choose to live and express their world views, and to life sciences through the consideration of how people long ago lived in a way very much defined by natural processes.

Lesson three – site visit:

We took each class (around 23 boys) to the actual site in the nature reserve where the artefacts were found, and gave them a short tour. During the 20 minutes available, we tried to give them an idea of the extent of the settlement, and showed them actual artefacts on the surface of the ground. These included pottery fragments, remains from iron smelting, grindstones and other similar artefacts. (Important note: it is against the law to disturb or move any archaeological artefact in South Africa without permission from the relevant South African government department.)

Lessons four to six – developing a village layout plan:

The groups of boys were tasked with showing and explaining in detail what they thought the early Iron Age settlement would have looked like. To help them in this task we provided several books, artefacts and displays as reference material.

They needed to show on an aerial photograph the extent of the settlement, then use a poster to show how they thought the settlement would have been laid out, explaining their reasons for each component of their layout. The boys were rewarded primarily for their reasoning and explanations for the layout.

This is so that they would have to think carefully about how people live, what they need and how they relate to their physical and social environments. An additional benefit was that the display and other research material were exhibited in the school library, and were thus available for boys in other grades to investigate and learn from.

Results and recommendations

The project took a great deal of planning and preparation, and required intensive monitoring during the process. The boys in general chose to engage well with the process, and staff enjoyed the new material and approach. We will definitely be doing the project again.

Improvements are an inherent part of process-based learning work such as this project, and we plan to improve it by giving the boys another lesson or two for the village layout and explanation portion of the project, as well as by making the marking rubric simpler. This was a thoroughly enjoyable project for staff and boys. It took advantage of a unique opportunity, and made the curriculum more relevant and place-specific.

Its cross-curricular approach was beneficial to the boys’ learning as a whole, and they learnt specific archaeology skills and knowledge – such as the fact that people in the past organised their lives around the same needs as we do now, how to recognise artefacts that are clearly made by people, and the importance of leaving things where they are found.

Turn your students into detectives I have been asked how schools without our facilities might adapt this idea to their circumstances. I would urge them to try, if they have some clear evidence of previous occupation, however long ago. Work with any local historians or museums in your area, and get your students to undertake the fascinating task of recreating the past.

John Roff is involved with environmental education and curriculum development at Hilton College. If you would like to discuss this project and other curriculum development programmes underway at Hilton (the curriculum development team is currently working on a nine-lesson module focusing on musical instruments of the world), contact Roff at e-mail:

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Category: Featured Articles, Winter 2014

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